A full run through the King Crimson discography: Part 13 (Three of a Perfect Pair, 1984)

By 1984, the Belew/Bruford/Levin lineup was still together: the longest-lasting version of Crimson to date, though apparently things were getting pretty rocky during the Beat sessions. Good thing Fripp and Belew patched things up, otherwise we wouldn’t have gotten Three of a Perfect Pair.

Perfect Pair (or Three? Abbreviating this one is awkward) is generally seen as also a step down from the excellence of Discipline but a step up from Beat (so I guess a half-step up?) I more or less agree with that; it’s not for nothing that Discipline is the last of the four Crimson albums widely considered to be extremely influential/revolutionary/etc. (along with Crimson King, Larks’ Tongues, and Red, or that’s how I count them, at least.) It’s not that this version of the band had run out of steam after its first album — Beat had some great material, but it also varied wildly in quality and had a sharp division between its first and second sides, featuring both more straightforward pop and out-there experimentation with just a little of the blending that worked so well on Discipline.

Perfect Pair has some of that issue too. In fact, it seems after Beat that the band realized what they’d done and simply decided to play up this pop/experimentation division on its next album, splitting it into a brain-inspired “Left Side” and “Right Side.” As before, the first side is poppy and catchy and radio-friendly (even if the radio ultimately might not have cared, sadly) and the second is full of weird extremely radio-unfriendly instrumentals. It’s also generally considered that the first side belongs to Adrian Belew and the second to Robert Fripp, though I doubt it’s as clear a split as that — if you know Belew’s solo work at all, he has plenty of weird experimentation to go along with his “normal” music, and the pop stuff on Perfect Pair wouldn’t work without Fripp’s guitar either.

As with Beat, I like this “pop side” more than the experimental one. So much for my hardcore prog fan credentials, but fuck it, what else can I say? Model Man and especially Man With an Open Heart are fine 80s pop songs, the latter of which definitely should have been a radio hit with its extremely catchy verse and chorus (though as with “Heartbeat”, I think it was passed on in favor of irritating dogshit like fill in the blank 80s trash hit you hear at your local grocery store. If you want another reason to turn on Publix, here it is, though this seems like more of a licensing issue.) These are all pretty straightforward love songs, too — a nice way to introduce Crimson to your normie friends to begin corrupting their minds so they eventually end up hooked on repeated listens to “Fracture”. I’m certainly not as open as the “man with an open heart” in his song, but I guess I can appreciate the sentiment in Belew’s lyrics at least.

However, the best songs on this side and on the entire album are the two that I think effectively mix Crimson’s two sides again. The title track is one of the best openers the band ever came up with, its lyrics about a dysfunctional mess of a relationship woven into that interlocking double guitar line in different time signatures trick resulting in a really special song, one of my favorites not just from 80s Crimson but from the band’s entire catalog. And Sleepless isn’t far behind with its godly bassline — cite this song as one of the reasons Tony Levin is so highly regarded; he does an amazing job here — and its tense atmosphere.

After the fourth track “Open Heart”, we’re done with all this cool bright 80s pop/rock stuff and into the dark starting with Nuages. Aside from the beat poetry ode to an abandoned wreck of a car Dig Me every piece from here on is an instrumental, and most of them (“Nuages”, Industry, and No Warning) are what I’d call proto-dark ambient with their sometimes creepy, oppressive feels. This is also predictably where the album loses a lot of listeners (or where it gains the real weirdos, maybe.)

I’m not in love with this second side either, and not even with the closing Larks’ Tongues in Aspic Part III, that song series the band revived for some reason (maybe to bookend their career, if you start counting from Larks’ Tongues? Interesting to hear the 80s update, but I much prefer Parts I and II.) However, I also don’t hate them at all or even dislike them on the level I do some of that second side of Beat. Maybe it’s because these pieces really do create an effective atmosphere, especially “Nuages” and “Industry” — I can see them used in the context of a game with an urban/industrial sci-fi setting of some kind. If we’re on the continued hunt for “who did these guys influence,” add my bet of the second side of Perfect Pair -> modern dark ambient/vaporwave, a little of which I’ve covered on the site (see TOWERS and desert sand.) This shouldn’t be a surprise, since Fripp collaborated so closely with ambient godfather Brian Eno through the 70s and 80s and contributed a lot to experimental music through his own solo work.

Not that it makes me want to put on this second side any more than I do already. Like I said, I’m not in love with it, but I can respect what they’re doing especially on the more effective tracks like “Industry”. I think the atmosphere is effective, anyway, so if that’s what they were going for with these tracks, it mostly worked. And combined with two of the band’s best songs ever, the title track and “Sleepless”, and a collection of pretty fine New Wave pop, I’d rank Perfect Pair pretty highly. It’s not quite up with their four all-time classics as I count them so far, but I probably put this album on just as often as those. At least the first side of it.

Over the years I’ve come to appreciate the ambient and atmospheric a lot more in music, games, anime, any art in general as long as it’s done tastefully and effectively. Maybe I’m just getting old.

And that’s all for 80s Crimson. No, not even a posthumous live album this time to tie matters up, though considering how god damn good this band was live, that was a big mistake, one that would only be remedied with the archival release Absent Lovers over a decade later. Both that and the official concert video Three of a Perfect Pair: Live in Japan are highly recommended, featuring great renditions of a lot of this band’s best songs along with a few old favorites like “Larks’ Tongues Part II” and “Red”, and the video is worth watching just to see their stage antics — Belew having a lot of fun with his guitar effects, Bruford going nuts on his massive drum kit, Levin just being cool on the bass, and Fripp of course sitting down the whole time as he works away on his guitar. (And don’t miss the short travelogue in the middle with the guys wandering around Asakusa! I’ve only been there in games, sadly. But one day…)

As for the band, it was once again finished following Perfect Pair. I guess they’d gone through each primary color in their trilogy of album covers and had none left, or more probably Robert Fripp again felt the band had done its job and had to hang it up. I won’t even say it’s a shame this time: I’m just happy we got what we did. Though they never quite reached the heights of Red, 80s Crimson was just as skilled and enjoyable, and in some ways even more likable than the 70s version (though maybe that’s just Belew’s infectious positivity?) They had their excesses too, but then it wouldn’t be Crimson without excesses. So rest in peace, 80s Crimson.

Does that mean this post series is finished? Not even close (are you getting used to this theme?) King Crimson wasn’t dead but was merely on a long hiatus, though once again the members didn’t know it. Next post, we’ll be entering my era: the 90s. See you there!


* A general note on the album cover, because despite its simplicity I thought this one deserved some attention. Apparently that weird symbol wasn’t just something the guys pulled out of their asses. According to the album’s Wikipedia page:

The Peter Willis designed artwork illustrates the sacred–profane dichotomy while being a simplified version of the Larks’ Tongues in Aspic cover; a rising phallic object represents a male solar deity about to penetrate the crescent figure, a female lunar deity.

So there you go. And now I can’t look at this cover the same way ever again.


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